‘Crossing boundaries’: Audrey Murrell’s first year as honors dean

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Image via University of Pittsburgh

Audrey Murrell made history one year ago as the first person of color and woman to hold the position of dean of the University Honors College.

By Martha Layne, Senior Staff Writer

When Audrey Murrell took on the position of acting dean of the University Honors College, she was full of ideas and initiatives, but was anticipating challenges along the way. Murrell insisted that she wouldn’t have been able to adjust without the support of her staff and colleagues.

“The Pitt Honors staff answered daily questions from me as I quickly got up to speed, tolerated my crazy late-night emails and gave me oatmeal raisin cookies — my favorite — when I had a bad day,” Murrell said. “My first year would not have been successful or fun without them.”

The end of the spring semester marked the end of Murrell’s first year and the beginning of her final year as the UHC’s acting dean. She made history last year as the first African American and first woman to hold this position, transferring from her office at Sennott Square as associate dean at Pitt’s College of Business Administration to the home of UHC on the 36th floor of the Cathedral of Learning.

Murrell said that the major — and her favorite — difference between her roles in the CBA and UHC is the scope of students she works with. In her previous position, she worked almost exclusively with undergraduate business students. But in this new role, she interacts with students from all majors, disciplines and areas across the Pitt community. 

Although the type of student differs, she said, the relationship she has with them is the same.

“In many ways the roles are similar — looking at how to support students both inside and outside of the classroom, building partnerships between students, faculty, alumni and having fun creating the next big thing,” Murrell said.

Whether or not she liked it, she said, the “next big thing” in academia came to her — a global pandemic. Suddenly, in-person conversations, meetings and special events were missed and had to be worked around. Murrell joked about taking for granted mundane daily routines.

“I must admit to even missing those long elevator rides up to the 36th floor of the Cathedral of Learning — but only a little bit,” Murrell said.

Despite the unexpected challenges, Murrell said there is no shortage of rewards to the job. One of the most meaningful aspects of the role is the regular interactions with UHC alumni. She meets with alumni locally and around the country who, according to Murrell, continue to inspire her and remind her of why she goes to work each day.

As an example of why she appreciates collaborating with students and staff members, Murrell gave the example of “crossing boundaries,” a practice created by a UHC staffer. Murrell said this includes moving “beyond the things that limit our thinking, restrict our experiences and block our ability to understand others and the world around us.” It’s something she said she continues to learn and relearn throughout her time at the University. 

“This means that through research, academic coursework, community engagement and experiential learning, UHC students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners work together in order to gain knowledge and then put that knowledge into action for the public good,” Murrell said.

Murrell’s practice of crossing boundaries, she said, is part of everything she does at the University. One of Murrell’s major initiatives during her first year was the creation of “scholar communities.” These groups of faculty and students across disciplines, majors, areas of expertise and personal interests come together and work on projects, activities, research and events centered around a common theme.

One of the first scholar communities focused on food ecosystems — “resilient” food systems with a proper balance between economic, social and environmental sustainability. Murrell said projects are being organized to partner with Food21 — an organization focused on building a resilient and sustainable food economy for the Pittsburgh region — to help areas negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Honors College plans to launch two additional scholar communities in the near future. One will partner with the Pittsburgh Collaboratory for Water Research, Education and Outreach and with the Water Institute of the Gulf in New Orleans, to work on solving issues of water quality, water policy and socio-economic resilience in Southwestern Pennsylvania and across the nation.

The other new community will include Pitt’s Horror Studies Working Group, the Film and Media Studies Program, Center for International Studies, University Library System, University English Department and the George A. Romero Foundation to better understand horror, educate others and promote the horror genre in all media forms, countries of origin and historical periods.

Dave Hornyak, the assistant dean of the Honors College, said Murrell has refined the mission by formalizing the requirements for the Honors College and distinction.

“She is creating an environment which encourages scholarship of impact among Pitt students,” Hornyak said. “I admire her passion, energy, never-ending ideas, but most of all, I admire her commitment to the students at Pitt. She lives the values she speaks.”

Murrell also implemented many significant changes to the Honors College experience for first-year students. For last academic year, she introduced a new requirement that first-year honors students live in Sutherland Hall. But this requirement has been lifted for the upcoming academic year after student backlash. Honors students now have the option to live in the honors housing units in Sutherland or Brackenridge halls, or opt out of honors housing entirely.

Another change for Murrell’s first year was the addition of a new joint-degree program. This new program requires completion of the Honors Outside the Classroom Curriculum and 24 credits, while maintaining a 3.25 GPA. After completing all of the requirements, students will earn a “with honors” distinction on their diploma. Students in this program also have access to priority course registration, priority access to certain housing options and a personal mentor to help in their academic journey.

In order for students to take advantage of all upcoming projects, Murrell said, she advises incoming first-years to ask lots of questions and to keep in mind that learning takes place both inside and outside of classrooms.

“Pitt has a lot to offer our students and there is no way you can navigate this experience alone,” Murrell said. “Get involved in student organizations, activities, alumni events, community service projects and other opportunities to connect with people across the campus.”

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